March 14, 2011

Early farming was inefficient compared to foraging

Early farming was only able to generate some 60% of what foraging (hunting and gathering) did, according to new research:

Samuel Bowles, Cultivation of cereals by the first farmers was not more productive than foraging. PNAS, 2011. Pay per view (depending on world region and time).


Did foragers become farmers because cultivation of crops was simply a better way to make a living? If so, what is arguably the greatest ever revolution in human livelihoods is readily explained. To answer the question, I estimate the caloric returns per hour of labor devoted to foraging wild species and cultivating the cereals exploited by the first farmers, using data on foragers and land-abundant hand-tool farmers in the ethnographic and historical record, as well as archaeological evidence. A convincing answer must account not only for the work of foraging and cultivation but also for storage, processing, and other indirect labor, and for the costs associated with the delayed nature of agricultural production and the greater exposure to risk of those whose livelihoods depended on a few cultivars rather than a larger number of wild species. Notwithstanding the considerable uncertainty to which these estimates inevitably are subject, the evidence is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the productivity of the first farmers exceeded that of early Holocene foragers. Social and demographic aspects of farming, rather than its productivity, may have been essential to its emergence and spread. Prominent among these aspects may have been the contribution of farming to population growth and to military prowess, both promoting the spread of farming as a livelihood.

A news article is also available at PhysOrg.

Is the alternative explanation correct?

I find this discovery most interesting because the assumption has generally been that automatically farming was more productive than the old human way of life: foraging what Nature had to offer. 

Yet this assumption did not explain why farming had not evolved earlier or why the, generally very pragmatic, peoples of the World, did not adopt it earlier, as they were no doubt aware of how gardening could be done.

It reminds me somewhat of the very much comparable misunderstanding on the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age: iron had by then been known for very long but it was brittle in comparison with bronze, quasi-bronze (copper and arsenicum) and even the old good flint stone. Actually I read somewhere recently that another good old friend of humankind, obsidian, makes such great blades that compete favorably with steel scalpels.

Things are not so simple: steel began to be developed (as sweet iron is not really good for most uses) after tin resources began to fail in the Eastern Mediterranean, as the communications with Atlantic Europe (where most tin mines were back then) may have collapsed when the two classical Iberian civilizations, El Argar and Zambujal (VNSP), did as well for reasons not well understood and not too relevant to discuss here. 
It was therefore problems in the bronze industry, so critical for the military of the time, what pushed steel technology ahead, inaugurating the Iron Age.

Molino neolítico de vaivén
Seed milling was done long before Neolithic too
Therefore I'd like to consider what may have caused people to adopt farming instead of just continue foraging, as they had done successfully until that time. We know that farming was preceded by a period we call Mesolithic and that is characterized by intensive foraging of wild cereals or other foraging behaviors that somehow announce the advent of farming or herding. 

So, in the Fertile Crescent, there was for a time, since about the end of the Ice Age, a focus on a pre-farming type of foraging. As I have not read the paper yet, I do not know if Bowles has factored this period in his equations. As for me, I'd think that this kind of foraging (maybe already associated to some early gardening practices) we call Mesolithic, seems to respond to an ecological pressure of some sort, no doubt related to the then ongoing climate change. 

Another issue I am pondering is that, even before cereal farming was fully developed in Palestine, herding of sheep and goat was adopted in Kurdistan, followed by cow herding in Anatolia (near the well-named Taurus mountains). Maybe herding had to be developed in order to make farming effective? Cattle (be it bovine or ovi-caprine) provides nutrients in form of manure and, goats specially but not only, can also be used to clear up wild vegetation areas, while pigs are great to plow the fields.

So I am wondering if animal domestication was a condition to make cereal (and pulse and flax) farming an economically effective way of life. 
Honestly I prefer a true economic explanation rather than one based on very conjectural preferences about sedentarism, and this may be made up of:
  • The push factor of climate change at the end of the Ice Age
  • The pull factor of animal domestication, increasing the yields of agriculture until it became economically worthwile
What do you think?


  1. I agree with you that a somewhat sophisticated, "complete" agricultural package was necessary - just to withstand typical climatic fluctuations (e.g., storage, shelter, and animal flexibility).

    Being able to tend to and shelter both cattle and sheep/goat, and later also pigs, of course provides for much more flexibility with climatic changes, diseases, and difference of terrain and climate in expansion areas.

    But it seems trivial that the absolute safest way of living always would have included local foraging (if not active growing) of nuts, fruits, berries, roots, and mushrooms as well as local wild life --- until many millennia later, such activities were regulated and limited by authorities.

    In essence, agriculturalists simply widened their bets: even if calorically expensive, their activities during spring and the summer gave insurance of some return, which - as before - could be supplemented by foraging, hunting, and fishing activities throughout the year.

  2. Honestly, I'm glad that you could understand what I wrote because I'm not really satisfied with this article, which I wrote in a hurry just before going to bed.

    In any case I must say that, for what I can see in documentaries, winter is not bad time for carnivores - and we are partly so. So saving for winter may not be such a good idea if you know how to exploit your environment. However it may depend on local ecology.

    While it is true that having some silos with grain reserves may provide some guarantees of survival, the guarantee is thin because rodents and insects and even human plunderers may destroy that reserve. And all that anyhow demands very hard work in comparison to foraging.

    Certainly, early farming surely needed supplements via hunting and gathering of some sort.

    In any case the most important finding here is that farming is not essentially better than foraging.

  3. Here, in the eastern United States, I understand that the Native populations exploited the local hickory nuts for thousands of years. Even after the highlands were depopulated, apparently in favor of more agriculturally oriented settlements in the lowlands, tribes would still return to the mountains in the fall, to harvest and process nuts. I have walked freshly plowed fields, around here, and seen the nutting stones, burnt stones, and kilo after kilo of debitage, lying wherever one looked.

    I think this is significant, somehow. It suggests that it is not a question of being an agriculturist or being a forager, but more likely a combination of the two, perhaps over a fairly long period of time. I think it also possible that Natives could, at least conceivably, have been planting nut-bearing trees as well. Arboriculture seems an obvious development for such peoples, yet I think something like that would be almost impossible to detect in the material record.

  4. By the way, if it matters, I have posted here before under the name, "Virginia Highlander", I think. I was logged into a different Google account and thus the change.

  5. Indeed, St. Michael, early, irregular gardening by foragers is hard to impossible to discern in the archaeological record.

    We are surely headed anyhow to a better understanding anyhow of the Neolithic Revolution as less of a sudden and more of a gradual process, and also to an understanding of early farmers as less dramatically advantaged in relation to nearby huntergatherers, if at all.

  6. Interesting hypothesis.

    Another parallel New World insight is that the pillars of Central American New World agriculture (corn, beans and squash, IIRC), developed in locations separated by several hundred miles, hundreds of years in time from each other. Until all three were in place, the agricultural diet was nutritionally deficient and quite marginal relative to alternatives.

    The study isn't entirely clear if it is looking at proto-farming, or true farming of domesticates. One possibility that seems plausible regarding the timing of the Neolithic is that the wet Sahara (and wet period in neighboring areas) peaked around the time that farming was invented. It certainly seems plausible that excellent years for proto-farmers may have spurred commitment to a lifestyle that was suboptimal in ordinary years until domesticates became more specialized and other farming technologies were developed.

    Put another way, the important question to ask may not be "was farming more productive than foraging?", but "When did farming become more productive than foraging?"

    Also, switching to an initially suboptimal means of production may have possible only once foraging and farming were both sustainable ways of life in boom years.

    The caveat on domestic animals being necessary for farming is that herder societies and farmer societies seem to have been deeply separated from each other (while still engaging in trade with each other) from at least the copper age when we start to see the earliest written records, and remained segregated until after the Iron Age for the most part.

    So, the synergies can't be all that great.

  7. In North America we have historical examples of peoples who were mostly hunter-gatherers (or almost exclusively hunters) and who farmed some corn as complement.

    If you read the quite interesting diaries of George Catlin, which deal largely with the now extinct Mandans, they are described as sedentary hunters with a small seasonal complement in form of corn. They basically ate preserved bison meat all the time.

    "The caveat on domestic animals being necessary for farming is that herder societies and farmer societies seem to have been deeply separated from each other"...

    Not really. Nearly all farming societies had some form of domestic animals. Another thing is that some pastoralist groups were quite specialized but farmers almost always had some livestock. Yo may have just a few goats or cows or pigs, or even have economic roles divided within a village (some farm, some herd) but animals were soon integrated in virtually all farmer economies.

    What you say about Bronze Age may reflect an increase in bovine cattle and horses in that period in many areas but, remember that there are other smaller but still very relevant livestock types.

    Anatolian Neolithic for example is known to have used all the basic domesticates since early on. In Europe you also see all them since the beginning or almost. The only variant is that bovine cattle was not spread through the Mediterranean in the first wave - but goats and sheep were and pigs are also found soon after.

    I am admittedly speculating but the reality is that herding and farming were soon together, at least where farming was the main economic activity.

  8. PS- Also, where cattle herders are traditionally a distinct population, like the Peul in the Sahel, they have agreements with the farmers, who benefit from their grazing in several ways. Even where the different economic roles exist in different ethnic groups, they are integrated with each other.


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